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The Beauty of the Battle of Adwa

February 25, 2021

Tsegaye Tegenu, PhD

Beauty is interpreted differently. Often it refers to physical characteristics that provides pleasure to senses. From this perspective, war is ugly because it causes death, injuries, and destruction. If we see beauty as a perception, it can lie outside the physical aspect.  Moral values and personal characteristics such as kindness and decency are beautiful properties. In this sense, Italian arrogance, and plan to conquer Ethiopia is ugly. On the other hand, Ethiopians determination to stand up for their dignity and freedom is a beautiful thing.

Adwa is an ideal form of beauty which combines the quality of bravery, self-sacrifice, love for others and a nation, fighting determination, devotion, loyalty, respect, teamwork, leadership, trust, hard work, gender equality, exemplary, etc. These attributes tell us that the Battle of Adwa which was fought over two days had the whole package of goodness, ironically coming from a black African country which was supposed to be civilized by colonialism. There is a vast literature discussing these qualities of Battle of Adwa. I have selected the following shape, color and form that expresses the sense and sight of its beauty: military culture, mobilization and providing efforts, campaign and engagement plan thinking, gender equity, and inspirational battle lesson.

Military Culture

The soldiers who marched to Adwa were embodiments of the military culture and historical experiences of the Ethiopian society. The military ethos and values (leadership, loyalty, comradeship, self-sacrifice, fighting spirit) can be traced as far back as the Era of Princes (1769-1855). During this period there were frequent troop movements due to personal rivalry of regional lords and need for surplus extraction. To get control over the judicial and fiscal administration of the provinces, regional lords were military organized and they were in frequent conflicts. Just like in early modern Europe, war was the most “rational and rapid” means of surplus extraction from farmers. Agriculture and manufacturing sectors were not developed to provide surplus.

Loyalty to kings were means of holding onto governorship office. In most cases kings had to use some form of violence to maintain central authority. Between the coronation of Emperor Tewedros (1855) and the battle of Adwa 1896, there were over 107 massive imperial troop movements and internal conflicts in the country. Men who rose to leadership in the service of kings were distinguished by their achievements, their “ability to shoot a rabbit dead while only its ears were showing”. The Battle of Adwa was an extension of these prolonged internal conflicts. It came at the height of the military experience and fighting performance of Ethiopian kings and soldiers. Ethiopians had greater experience in the art of organizing a military force, mobilization of human and material resources for the accomplishment of military ends. It was hard to find such a military culture during the colonial scramble for Africa.

Mobilization and Provisioning Effort

Knowing the ugliness of war, Menelik tried to solve the problem by diplomatic means. He negotiated with Italy for over five years to change the Italian version of the Wuchale Treaty. Italian government refused to change and the newspapers in Italy circulated information that King Umberto to be crowned as Emperor of Ethiopia. That was crazy, Menelik and regional lords knew that war was inevitable, and some began to prepare for it even before the king made a national call. On 17 of September 1895, a market day in Addis Ababa, the emperor called the nation to arms. Despite communication and transport problems, in a matter of two months more than 100,000 soldiers armed with rifles and lances were assembled in the specified areas (Addis Ababa, Were Illu, Ashenge, and Mekele).

Mobilizing, moving and supplying the large body of army, what may be termed the “nuts and bolts” of war was challenging. These troops were in the fields for about 150 days. During the time of campaigns soldiers were supposed to bring provision from their own sources which would last for about twenty days, and for the rest of the days they had to be feed by different means for which the commandant governors were responsible. The system of provisioning was not modern, while the common soldiers prepare for the twenty days, the governors and generals had to organize their own supply system.

In the figure 100 000, the large number of followers such attendants who prepared food and drinks, men who fetched firewood, and the many auxiliary forces of the army were not counted, and they had to be feed as well. On top of this there were tens of thousands of war horse, mules, cattle for slaughter, sheep, donkeys and other transport animals. Imagine the task of feeding all these animals: daily they need water and fodder. Menelik aim was to march to Hamasen highlands, for the province of Tigray could not support all these forces, who had already exhausted their provision after four months of continues march. It was when Menelik and his generals were discussing the problems of provision and alternatives, that the Italians came and surprised them with attack at Adwa.


Campaign Plan Thinking

The Ethiopian campaign plan focused on moving troops far deep into the enemy territory by passing small detachment force posted as defense and deterrence. The military action of the Ethiopian armed forces was basically a type of strategic offensive accomplished through the opening of two strategic fronts to defeat the main groupings of enemy troops deep into its territory.

The Emperor and governor generals followed traditional strategy of lowering the human cost of the war. They planned to a great length to avoid putting their soldiers in harm’s way. During their march they avoided piecemeal fight and focused to engage the main enemy force far deep in the territory controlled by it. This rule of military campaign and plan was followed seriously. Those commanders who were unable to march without fighting the small fortifications of Italians were seriously warned, even if they chased out and disbursed the Italian forces.

At Wefla, some six weeks before the Battle of Adwa, the emperor held military review, guns were saluted and fired. All military commanders lined up with their soldiers wearing their traditional uniform and decoration, which “glittered like the sun” the whole day. This was in the tradition of the Ethiopian army practice assessing readiness of the troops and affirm imminence of a battle. The emperor saw the level of personnel, arms and military equipment, availability of necessary reserves, the high level of combat moral, the mutual support of the forces of the regional governors in the event of combat, the discipline and organization of the army. Since the military review at Wefla, troops were marching in complete combat readiness to perform the combat mission. The military review brought the troops into full combat readiness, in possible areas of military operation.

Engagement Plan

As the main forces of the two armies were getting close the troop movement was done in anticipation of a surprise attack from the enemy. The characteristic of the march had also changed: the length of the route and duration it took from the initial place to the far point of an assembly area became shorter. As they approached the enemy, the Emperor and the governors discussed an operational strategy and dropped the idea of attacking the fortified Italian position and agreed to advance forward to Hamassen, the seat of the colonial government.

At that moment the Italian troops had provision left only good enough to feed for one week, and Baratieri decided to attack the Ethiopian force, which was supposed to march to Hammasen in the next morning. At night the Italian troops left their position at Adigrat and attacked the Ethiopian forces in the morning at 5 a.m. local time. The Ethiopian forces were not ready. About one-third of the forces were left either to look for provision, or some went to Aksum to visit religious center, the Saint Merry church. The rest were not ready for any engagement according to the tradition of Ethiopian battle.


The battle of Adwa can be called a meeting engagement, which is a variety of offensive type of combat action. It was a clash of troops of the two sides advancing toward each other. At Adwa there was a rapid closing of the two sides, and they entered into combat. Italy took the initiative, made a surprise attack (timely decision), through rapid commitment of the main forces, and carrying out attacks against the main center, and flanks of the Ethiopian army, to give it a sudden blow. But Italy could not retain the initiative.

The Italian operational plan failed to conceptualize the alignment, (i.e., grouping) of the Ethiopian forces and their possible operation. In the Ethiopian strategic culture, conducting of engagement was left to the freedom of the commander and individual initiative of the soldiers.

Even if the Ethiopian troops were not in a combat form, the laying out of campaign and the position of the troops was in such a structure that made combat formation of troops very rapid. The Ethiopian way of military camping had an in-built defense mechanism and flexibility for the maneuver of troops to counterattack. In combat action, camp commanders were expected to maneuver the troops in positions of left, right, center and rare as indicated by the strategic functions of their title. The maneuver was often accomplished by a close envelopment of an enemy flanks.

Though the Ethiopian army was surprised it was not difficult to search for a favorable position with respect to the enemy and to advance and make regrouping if the need arise. The very structural formation of troops was flexible enough for rapid maneuver of troops in a moon like shape, the essence of which consisted attacking of the outer flanks of the enemy while concentrating superiority of force in the middle for a subsequent annihilation. Italians lost the battle because they did not know the enemy they were confronting. They had no good knowledge of the response capability of the Ethiopian army, military thinking of its commanders and the operational culture.

It seemed that the plan of Baratieri emphasized on the method of employing weapons (effective use of his firepower) following the European style of warfare. In the Ethiopian context, there was no tradition of reliance on fire power. Until the second half of the nineteenth century firearms plaid limited role in battles. Their numbers were limited and their qualities were relatively poor as most of them belonged to earlier periods. The Ethiopian style stressed more on mobility and maneuver than on linear formation and on rank co-ordination. It was designed for short and decisive battle than for siege warfare. There was reliance on mass maneuver and a fast-moving confrontation involving cavalry and infantry forces. Battlefield tactics depended much on the nature of the mass maneuver and identification of the weakest links of the enemy. Actions were not characterized by battle formations, rather they were dominated by individual initiatives, mobility and energy. Leadership and morale were ingredients important for success.

Gender Equity

Ethiopian women had greater role in military leadership. We can take Empress Tayitu who was known as good strategist. On the way marching to Adwa, the Ethiopian force was liberating Italian military post stationed in southern Tigray. In Mekele, the Italians had strong fortification, and engaged in artillery fighting. Seeing this Empress Tayitu order one of her commander to study the Italians water supply situation (by the way the Empress had her own army, both artillery and riflemen, paid and clothed by the empress herself). The commandant reported to her that there was 75 meter distance between the water reservoir and the Italian fortification. The Empress wanted to occupy the water supply and cut off the Italians. She consulted her plan and asked Menelik for a permission since he was the overall commander of the army. Menelik agreed and the Empress sent her 600 soldiers at night and seized the supply. The war and the siege lasted fifteen days, and in all the times the empress was preparing and sending fresh food to her army at night. Because of lack of water, the Italian army was forced to surrender.

Once again, at Adwa, the Empress went right into the battle when the Italian force seemed to break the middle Ethiopian force (Gedam) where Emperors normally took position. Seeing the Empress rushing on foot, soldiers, including those wounded, dashed into the middle to revert the danger. Once it was over, the Empress spent the rest of the days in treating wounded soldiers. This role of Tayitu represented the tradition of female warriors leading troops on campaign. Military leadership was one of the sphere of activity in which Ethiopian Women achieved equality in an environment dominated by men.


Whether war is waged out of love or hate for others, it has its own costs. War is a cause of major death, injuries, and unquantifiable destruction in human history. If one sees only the destruction, war is ugly. But when challenged by arrogant, rude and disrespectful nation, to stand up for one’s dignity and freedom is a beautiful thing. As British historian John Stuart Mill (1806–73) said, “a man who has nothing which he is willing to fight for, nothing which he cares more about than he does about his personal safety, is a miserable creature”. From a moral dimension, the person’s quality to stand up for one’s dignity and freedom is beauty.

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